A Year Later, Max's Wine Dive Still Makes a Splash
Walk into Max's Wine Dive on a random weekend evening, and you might wonder if it's opening night. It's been a year since the restaurant, which serves self-described gourmet comfort food, rode up from Houston on a public relations blitzkrieg that filled the dining room to capacity. It's been packed with diners since. If you've neglected a reservation, expect to wait for a table, often more than an hour.
On a recent Friday night, couples clustered in the small waiting area near the front door, shielding themselves from an arctic blast every time diners entered or left. They filled the dining room and they almost filled the bar, too. It was date night at Max's, which it turns out is about as reliable as the crowds. Those who weren't already paired up looked like they'd be happy to do so.
If you join them, take advantage of those few open barstools. They'll keep you a safe distance from the door, and they're not a bad place to eat should the wait exceed the patience of your blood-sugar levels. The stools are comfortable enough for dining, and a large window lets you watch a team of cooks hammer out dinner for more than 100 guests at a time. You're also dangerously close to an impressive wine collection.
This is how I witnessed the construction of my chicken-fried steak, peering over bottles of Sangiovese blends. The act starts with a sizable New York strip steak that's violently pounded into a meat sheet that could easily double as a catcher's mitt. The cooks bread the beef and toss it in a deep fryer, where it emerges a minute or two later the color of lightly tanned leather. And since even leather treated this way would probably taste good, you can be reasonably sure the CFS at Max's will satisfy. It's tender, salty, tastes of beef and gravy and sits on an appropriately sized mountain of mashed potatoes.
The recipe for fried chicken is similar, except the poultry is prepped in a bath of buttermilk and jalapeños and is spared the violent rage of the cooks before it's sent swimming in oil. It arrives with the same crumbly crust as the steak, with plenty of savory nubs and ridges. The flesh is neither juicy nor dry, but the flavor is right. And there aren't too many other places where you'll be encouraged to drink Champagne with your fried chicken. The bird and bubbles pairing has joined a tagline for the restaurant, asking "Why the hell not!?" But with respect to most of the menu, it's not too hard to come up with reasons.
Burgers are overcooked in restaurants so often diners never bother to send them back, but the sin is less forgivable when a menu charges $15, tacks on $2 for cheese and then $4 more for bacon. Burgers this costly should be cooked to a customer's desired liking to an exacting degree. Burgers with such a price tag should arrive on pillow-soft buns that cradle their delicate payload the way parents carefully clutch a newborn. Burgers that cost more than most lunches should usher in a state of euphoria that is only interrupted for a short pause to wipe your chin while you wonder why you can never manage to accomplish a burger like this at home. But Max's $21 burger fashioned from everyday Angus beef is just an overcooked burger on a stiff bun. It's well within your culinary reach.
The onion rings served as on optional side are exceptional, big and bready numbers, and it's the simple and the fried things that stand out as the most dependable menu items. The fish and chips won't transcend basic pub grub, but it's another dish that gets the job done. And on the other side of the dining spectrum a translucent piece of monkfish wrapped in razor-thin bacon and served with a simple polenta cake looks like it belongs in a restaurant with white linen tablecloths. Simplicity can be hard to find on this menu, though, and when things get complicated, they get extreme.
The potato chips are perfectly fried, so uniformly crisp they could have been pulled from a bag of Lays, but they're assaulted with overwhelming truffle oil and cheap, not-gourmet cheese. They accompany sandwiches that are assaulted with even more.
While one or two eggs are sufficient for most egg sandwiches, Max's employs three. They're drizzled with truffle oil, slathered with black truffle aioli, topped off with cheese and served with more of those truffled chips. Sweetbreads are abused, too, stuffed into eggrolls with cabbage and peanut butter, and paired with a sweet and sour sauce meant to mimic jelly. The loud flavors reduce the sweetbreads down to an almost imperceptible texture, like offal training wheels — delicious morsels for curious diners who are afraid to try sweet meats.
Max's doesn't offer gourmet dining, but the perceived luxury offered in dishes like chicken-fried lobster compels customers to return and spend a significant amount of money. Max's is a place where customers can drink Champagne and never have to worry whether it's actually from the prescribed region in France because nobody gives a damn. It is a place where you can drink a bottle of Dom Pérignon for semi-reasonable prices but not endure potentially confusing menu terms like au poivre and vol-au-vent. At Max's, steaks are described simply as badass, even the Brussels sprouts are chicken-fried and the most accessible of organ meats are disguised as a childhood sandwich.
It's working. Houston's unwavering affection has prompted a second location and restaurants in Denver, Atlanta and Chicago are expected soon. Full dining rooms and long waits can be expected for weekends to come.
But here in Dallas at least, there are far better places to enjoy upscale comfort food. And matters of taste aside, most of them have a lot more soul. There are also better dives for picking at perfectly fried chicken if you really feel like slumming it. Some of them will even let you bring your own vino.
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